CARBONDALE — As lawmakers gather in Springfield to attempt to hammer out a budget deal, several school districts in Southern Illinois face the possibility that they will not open this fall if Illinois fails to approve education funding.
When State Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, hosted a meeting Tuesday to discuss cash flow issues with 22 Southern Illinois superintendents from the 59th Senate District, he found that at least four school districts may not have enough working cash to open their doors in August.
Additionally, a series of education cooperatives throughout the 59th have already prepared to close without a budget.
"These administrators have cut back for years and now we are in crisis mode," Fowler said, adding that he heard from one superintendent that he services his own district's buses.
The June 20 meeting was held on the eve of the Illinois General Assembly's return to the Capitol for a 10-day special session, which began Thursday.
At stake in this session is the passage of a school funding reform bill based on so-called Evidence Based Funding, SB1, most recently championed by Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill. Though the measure passed both the House and the Senate in May, Gov. Bruce Rauner has not signed it.
Critics of the bill say it includes a bailout for the Chicago Public School system in the form of a block grant earmarked for teacher pensions and residual payments due from past years when pensions were not properly funded.
Rauner addressed the issue in a June 2 interview on WBEZ radio provided by the governor's office.
"A good Democrat bill got introduced in the Senate, and a good Republican bill got introduced in the Senate. The House majority hijacked the the Democrat bill and added a big amendment that increased the Chicago support by hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars and treated Chicago separate and special and that is wrong. We should work with the original senate bills and use those as a basis to get a new funding formula and that's what we are going to do," Rauner said in that interview.
Fowler and Sen. Paul Schimpf, R-Waterloo, spoke Thursday from Springfield in support of the Republican proposal, SB 1124 SFA 3, which removes the Chicago block grant and ties it to another piece of legislation, resulting in a larger percentage of funds being distributed to downstate school systems.
Fowler said SB 1124, sponsored by Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, it treats all 852 school districts in the state the same way, and makes sure that no school districts lose money or funds.
“Within my district under the SB 1 proposal, Carterville would have received $338 per student. Under SB 1124 they will receive $584 per student. In Herrin, SB 1 would have provided about $516 per student but SB 1124 provides approximately $807,” Fowler said.
Shimpf and Fowler said that SB 1124's funding formula is supported by the latest data set from the Illinois State Board of Education and that ISBE analysis shows SB 1124 provides every single school district with more evidence-based tier funding than SB 1.
Manar’s response via a news release to the introduction of SB 1124 was fiery, stating that if SB 1124 were a final project, Barickman would earn an F.
“The spring legislative session ended more than three weeks ago. Senator Barickman missed the deadline,” Manar said in the release. “If his latest proposal was a final project, he’d earn an F because not only did he turn it in late, he showed up looking for his teacher after everyone had gone home and the school doors were locked for the summer.”
Manar took exception with Barickman’s negative characterizations of SB 1, which he said “has widespread support from school superintendents, educators, parents and school funding reform advocates throughout Illinois.”
“For Senator Barickman to portray Democrats and SB1, which passed in both chambers of the Legislature after months of careful deliberation and bipartisan negotiation, as somehow disingenuous, then to demand support for his extremely late proposal today, I am at a loss for further words.”
Fowler said both he and Shimpf are prepared for whatever negotiation is necessary to come up with a compromise solution.
“Sen. Schimpf and I have opted out of taking the per diem and the mileage to be here for this special session," Fowler said. "We made a commitment to come here and fight for the people within our district. We are doing this because it is our mission to serve our constituents in our respective districts.”
Regardless of which bill is adopted, time is running out for some local school districts.
“On average, between the five schools in Vienna and the surrounding area that feed into Vienna High, we have approximately 85 days of working cash available," said Vienna High School Superintendent Josh Stafford.